Adweek Elevate: Marketers on Social Relevance and Not Letting the Robots Take Control

Fernando Machado and Eddie Opara share their experiences

Burger King CMO Fernando Mercado highlighted the fast-food giant’s marketing evolution. Raquel Beauchamp
Headshot of Alissa Fleck

In his keynote presentation at Adweek’s Elevate: Creativity event, Burger King CMO Fernando Machado demonstrated how his brand pulled itself out of a marketing slump by recalibrating its advertising to be more socially relevant and turning “limited-time stunts” into “long-term growth.”

The event generally centered on the theme of the “big idea” evolving into the “long idea.”

Machado highlighted the fast-food giant’s marketing evolution—from a flop of an ad featuring Steven Tyler hawking chicken strips that debuted in 2012 to spots that better tapped into the zeitgeist and would leave viewers alternately touched and in stitches. In a heartfelt, Candid Camera-style spot around bullying in schools, the company juxtaposed the public’s reaction to watching kids get bullied with the public’s reaction to being served “bullied” Whoppers. (Spoiler: people were significantly more perturbed by the Whopper situation.)

Burger King also pushed a timely campaign around the time of the net neutrality vote, framing the debate in terms of burgers (i.e., pay more, get your burger faster). The ad worked to rally people to the brand’s side, garnering 60 million organic views and becoming a No. 1 trending topic on social media.

In honor of April Fool’s Day, the chain introduced a farcical “chocolate Whopper.” Fans were so distraught over the dessert being a fake, they took to social media en masse, concocting their own version. According to a Burger King campaign video and in a cheeky jab at the current presidential administration, “[Their] fake news became real news.” This initiative received 3.1 billion global impressions.

Machado also demonstrated how brands like Burger King can playfully use their competitors to their advantage without being overtly combative. For Halloween, the chain launched a successful initiative encouraging customers to show up dressed as clowns—a longtime hallmark of McDonald’s advertising—to claim a free meal. Global sales subsequently rose 15 percent, and the campaign received 21 billion impressions, Machado said.

The company deployed similarly playful and brand-humanizing but significantly smaller-scale tactics when it asked Wendy’s to prom and in its snappy social media response to IHOP changing its name to IHOb (which has thus far earned Burger King $4 million in media).

Following its more socially conscious and pop culture-engaged initiatives, Burger King had its best two years at Cannes Lions between 2015 and 2017.

Creativity and data are often at odds when it comes to advertising, but they can co-exist if brands learn from their successes as well as their misses and “bridge a culture of experimentation with strategy,” Machado said.

Much of the event focused on authenticity in advertising, social responsibility and the humanization of brands, so it felt a touch ironic when Eddie Opara, partner at Pentagram, capped off the installment with a discussion of robots that are powered by curiosity and get sad when you stop paying attention to them.

The agency has been working with AI and machine learning to build intelligent assistants with which kids can interact and learn.

Another one of Opara’s favorite recent projects was a “Blade Runner-esque” seven-story digital screen in Bangkok you can physically walk through.

But, when it comes to turning the big idea into the long idea, Opara emphasized the importance of not immediately jumping on new technology. One of the biggest challenges we face with AI, Opara said, is “Can we stop ourselves?” Can we further AI without handing control over to the machines? Opara, who said going to church is still one of his preferred ways to find peace and inspiration, concluded you can never really take the “man” from the “machine.”

@AlissaFleck Alissa Fleck is a New York City-based reporter, podcast producer and contributor to Adweek.